Appropriate Language

Is your child precocious or overly formal in his language?

Is your child:

  • Using language that makes him sound like an adult?
  • Echoing Grandma’s phrases?
  • Using a very precocious vocabulary but not sure what the words mean?
  • Struggling to talk about general topics but advanced in a specific area?
  • Regularly quoting and echoing things that are from TV or movies?
  • Interested in obscure or specific things and speaking like a little professor about them?
  • Lecturing others instead of talking with them?
  • Saying things like “Kids these days. . .” or “Teenagers, don’t they blow your mind?”

 

LET'S TALK ABOUT IT

It is great when children have advanced vocabulary, speak early and make unexpected comments. “Kid’s Say the Darndest Things!” was a popular comedic show back in the day because when young children say funny things, we love it. The problem is when that translates to a lack of social savvy or challenges with social communication later.

Advanced Vocabulary. An advanced vocabulary may simply be a sign of giftedness. One important question to ask though, is does my child know what he or she is saying? Does the comprehension match the use of language? It may not, but even if it does, bright children often have the skill of being able to adjust their language and communication style to match that of the conversation partner or listener at least to some degree.

Another clue for a parent regarding quirky or formal language versus an advanced vocabulary is whether or not the skill generalizes across topics. Does a child speak in an advanced manner with a big vocabulary for every conversation topic? Are there a few interests that really lead your child to share information?

An advanced vocabulary for all topics as well as the ability to talk to children or adults indicates that a child might be gifted.

An advanced vocabulary in certain topics and challenges relating to other children may still be the mark of a gifted child, but there could be a social communication weakness that if addressed early, might be easily corrected.

Inflexible language? It can be challenging particularly with your first child, who may talk to adults more anyway, and may not attend daycare or preschool with other children. It can be helpful to go to the pool, the park and have playdates to see how your child talks to and interacts with other children. Also listen to other children and how they talk to one another. With stereotyped, quirky or formal language you will get a feeling that the language is different. In some cases, this is accompanied by tone of voice, inflection and prosody that also sound unusual. See the article voice qualityin communicationto learn more.

If you get this feeling and have any other concerns for your child related to behavior, socialization, emotional symptoms etc. it can be helpful to talk with a professional. Remember that young children have developing brains that respond very well to teaching and support. It is much easier to help your child at a young age instead of as a 12-year-old.

CLINICAL DESCRIPTION

Some children use language that seems odd, awkward or unusual for the situation.

Language might be formal, precocious, very specific to a topic, professorial, or stereotyped (quoted/ echoed phrases).

Clinically, this unusual use of language is related to social communication challenges.

Children who are unsure about how to connect socially may feel most comfortable with facts. They may say something too formal or they may repeat information because of a personal interest or because these are the thoughts rolling through their minds. Their language may lack social connection.

Autism Spectrum Disorders include challenges in social communication and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior or interests. Social communication challenges in autism often include difficulty having a back and forth conversation, knowing what to say, or understanding what another person might want to talk or learn about.

The language a child with ASD uses to communicate can feel very quirky at times. Below examples of this language are provided:

Formal languageseems too advanced for the conversation or situation. Sometimes an advanced word may be used incorrectly, or a child may seem to have no idea what he means. At other times children have advanced language skills that appear formal and can lead to teasing from peers. Peers do not always relate to the child who speaks like a little adult.

Examples of Formal Language: One 6-year-old child said, “It’s an irrevocable fact!” This author said, “What does that mean, irrevocable?” The child said, “I don’t know, I heard it on TV.” A couple of instances like this may be unremarkable, but some children echo language frequently that they don’t understand. The advanced skill here may be memory and not language. The use of irrevocable is formal for a child who is six and he may just be echoing someone else.

An 8-year-old came into an office, after asking her mother to wait in the waiting room. She sat authoritatively on the couch and shared, “I’ve seen posters for Autism Awareness at school. I conducted my own review of the literature and I need you to make a diagnosis. I am certainly on the Autism Spectrum.” She was, and her language was very formal for 8 years old. She was also incredibly bright, but her speech was remarkable beyond that. She communicated in a way that was very formal for a child.

Precocious language might just be a cute thing your 3-year-old does. He uses phrases that are adult after spending time with the grandparents. It can become problematic if it becomes more common and seems to make up a lot of what your child says.

Example of Precocious Language: An 8-year-old girl looked at this author, shook her head, and said, “Teenagers these days. So moody!” This was after passing an older child in the hall on the way to our room. Later she said “I declare! This problem is unsolvable.” Talking to this child was often like talking to a 70-year-old woman. She spent a lot of time with her grandmother after school, but in school her peers thought she was odd.

Specific language can be odd because of the amount of detail a young child may have regarding a particular topic. It can also mislead a parent to assume that a child has a very high vocabulary when this may not generalize across areas. A child may have an advanced vocabulary for the parts of a truck engine but not know ‘how happy and sad are alike.’ Often children with this profile speak like a professional on one topic but have a Verbal IQ score in the Average range.

Example of Specific Language: When asked, “Tell me about your favorite animal?” A 10-year-old shared, “Dermochelys coriaceous are leatherback sea turtles, migratory predators that feed exclusively on gelatinous macro amoeba. Would you like to know more about their native habitat?” For this specific interest, our friend had memorized a number of scientific abstracts and could share information that was not typical for an elementary student. Her language was advanced in a very specific area that stood out as unusual.

Professorial languageis similar. It refers to language that is in the form of a lecture rather than a back and forth exchange. It also tends to be fact based. When you are speaking with a child who is professorial in speech you will feel like you are in a lecture hall, being offered factual information for your learning pleasure

Example of Professorial Language: One 5-year-old boy shared, “Did you know the two toed Sloth, sleeps in a tree?” “Why yes, let me tell you more about that.” Older kids may do this too. A 15-year-old interested in law enforcement reviewed with this author the rules and regulations governing officers of the law in the state of California, where he wanted to live. Again, it did not feel like a conversational exchange but more an offering of information.

Stereotyped language relates back to restricted and repetitive language or interests, discussed in a companion article. It is mentioned here in quirky language because it can mean repeating, echoing or scripting something like a television commercial, an ad on the radio or a favorite sequence from a movie or book. Often children using this language just begin to script with no context and you must determine what the relevance is for their words. Children with very limited language may script or offer lines from a favorite song while being unable to say “hi” or “my name is Scott”. It is unusual for a child to be able to recite Robinhoodor Star Warsand not be able to offer a verbal greeting.

Example of Stereotyped Language: A clinician may ask, “what do you see in this picture?” (a beach scene). A stereotyped response may be “There’s Klingons on the starboard bow, starboard bow, starboard bow; there’s Klingons on the starboard bow, starboard bow, Jim.” This is a stereotyped response because it is unrelated and is a quote from Star Trek. Another child may repeat to a clinician “Trix are for kids!” This is also stereotyped language.

WHAT TO DO

To improve casual, conversational language and decrease the use of stereotyped language, formal language and quirky phrasing, a parent can do several things.

First, use and model language for your child. Encourage back and forth conversation on a variety of topics. Practice asking questions, answering questions and sharing information back and forth. Vary activities and conversation topics at home. Try and introduce vocabulary that is appropriate and that other children may use.

We don’t want our children to lose the attention of peers by speaking in a way that is over their heads. Language used to talk with adults can be more advanced, the listener can follow.

By teaching a child how to have a conversation and be socially reciprocal, the conversation partner feels more relevant. A child can learn to care if the other person understands and is interested.

Second, before a playdatepractice specifically what topics your child may talk about and practice things to say. Help him come up with fun (true) things about himself to share with others. Help her think about cool things to talk about related to the topic of the playdate or party. Share some facts and ask opinion questions. Use a mix of things to say.

Prepare your child to know who he will be talking to and what the other child likes to do and talk about. A child is less likely to revert to stereotyped language if he knows some things he could say.

One author worked with a teenager who needed help developing the vocabulary to use with peers. When he felt nervous or overwhelmed he reverted to Star Wars speak and referred to everyone as “Jedi warriors” or “Darth Vader”. He talked a lot about the “dark side” when he was overwhelmed or confused, and this scared some of his peers. Practicing language to use helped him communicate with others.

Third, get your child enrolled in social activitiesthat provide opportunities to talk, share, offer facts, listen and ask questions. Practice what to talk about, when to listen and what things to say.

Fourth, consider a social skills groupwith clinicians who are trained to help children develop conversation skills and engage in back and forth conversation as well as social interaction like playing games, talking about topics or working together to solve problems or puzzles.

Fifth, Provide clarification.Give your child time to teach and lecture. Call it teaching and lecturing. “Johnny, would you like to teach us about dinosaurs?” or “Do you want to videotape a speech about turtles, so we can send it to grandma? She’d love to learn!” If you can explain what a lecture is and what a conversation is, your child can start to learn the difference and determine what is appropriate when.

For quotes, scripted and stereotyped language, teach your child to preface it. If he or she needs or wants to say something from a movie or TV show, have him introduce it. For example, “This is from my favorite Star Trek song. It’s so silly. Star Trek is a show my dad loved when he was little.” Then the Klingon statement has context.

SIMILAR SYMPTOMS

If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Social skills (Socializing): children with formal language may have overall social skill difficulties
  • Conversation: children with scripted, stereotyped or formal language are likely to struggle with conversations
  • Pragmatic language: children with formal language may struggle with making social connections through the use of language
  • Rigidity: children who are rigid tend to be more repetitive and might be likely to lecture others instead of converse
  • Perseverating: this means getting stuck on a topic or interest and struggling to shift which is common for children on the Autism Spectrum
  • Repetitive Behavior: as noted before, often repetitive behaviors that have motor components like spinning or jumping or flapping are related to being repetitive or saying repetitive things. All of these can relate to social skills challenges like those in autism
  • Voice: voice tone is related to formal, stereotyped and quirky language. Some children with autism have different voice quality that may be sing-song, monotoned, robotic or odd in pitch and tone in a way that is quickly remarkable to the listener

POTENTIAL DISABILITIES

Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: deficits in social communication and restricted interests or behaviors. This is by far the most likely cause of quirky, formal language if it causes clinical concern and impacts day to day life
  • Giftedness: gifted children can have very mature interests at times and may have very advanced vocabulary. They should still be able to have a conversation with a peer or adult
  • Intellectual Disability: individuals with low IQ scores often have difficulties with verbal comprehension, particularly for more abstract information, and thus conversation skills can be impacted, and a person may respond in a stereotyped way. Language may often be quoted or scripted. It can be challenging to differentiate an intellectual disability alone from having both an intellectual disability and having autism. A psychologist who specializes in autism assessment can do this

WHERE TO GO FOR HELP

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profileof concerns for your child or consult ‘live’with a psychologist or to obtain a virtual or in-person assessment of symptoms
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to consider symptoms in mental health context, seek a comprehensive evaluation
  • School Psychologist: to test IQ, anxiety, social skills and consider academic impact
  • Speech and Language Pathologist: to provide language assessment and then therapy, at school therapy can happen at lunch-time or during recess for a natural social environment. May be in a group or the therapist may come into the classroom to facilitate social learning, conversation and shared interests
  • Social Group: Often facilitated by a social worker, counselor or psychologist, a group with other children with an emphasis on social and conversation skills. Make sure your child is matched by approximate age and children have similar language skills for the most success in these groups

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • ADOS-2: test of social communication issues associated with autism
  • CELF-5 (including the pragmatics profile): test of language ability
  • Child Interview or self-report rating scales: tests for emotional or psychological problems
  • Parent and teacher rating scales: tests of emotions, behavior, and social skills such as: BASC-3, SRS, SCQ, Conner’s-3
  • WISC-V: test of cognitive ability (IQ test)

LEARN MORE

Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

[2] Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.

http://socialskillstrainingproject.com/books.html

[3] Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Child-Family-School-Community-Socialization/dp/1305088972/

 

[4] Mendler, Allen (2013). Teaching your students how to have a conversation.

Amazon: http://www.edutopia.org/blog/teaching-your-students-conversation-allen-mendler

 

[5] Ozonoff, Sally & Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Parents-High-Functioning-Autism-Spectrum-Disorder/dp/1462517471/

[6] UCLA PEERS Clinic https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peers

[7] Giler, Janet Z. (2000). Socially ADDept: A manual for parents of children with ADHD and / or learning disabilities.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Socially-ADDept-Children-Learning-Disabilities/dp/0966696921/

 

[8] Giler, Janet Z. (2011). Socially ADDept: Teaching social skills to children with ADHD, LD, and Asperger’s.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Socially-ADDept-Teaching-Children-Aspergers/dp/047059683X/

 

[9] Baker, Jed. (2006) Social skills picture book for high school and beyond.https://www.amazon.com/Social-Skills-Picture-School-Beyond/dp/1932565353/

[10] Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.

http://socialskillstrainingproject.com/books.html

 

[11] Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers.

 

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Social-Story-Revised-Expanded-Anniversary/dp/1935274058/

 

[12] McConnell, Nancy & LoGuidice (1998). That’s Life! Social language.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Thats-Social-Language-Nancy-McConnell/dp/0760602247/

 

[13] Fein, Deborah (2011). “The Neuropsychology of Autism”

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Neuropsychology-Autism-Deborah-Fein/dp/0195378318/

 

Children’s books on social skills:

Brown, Laurie Krasny & Brown, Marc (2001). How to be a friend: A guide to making friends and keeping them (Dino life guides for families).

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/How-Be-Friend-Friends-Families/dp/0316111538/

 

Cook, Julia (2012). Making Friends is an art!: A children’s book on making friends (Happy to be, you and me).

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Making-Friends-Art-Childrens-Paperback/dp/B00DCVWAJI/

 

Cooper, Scott (2005). Speak up and get along!: Learn the mighty might, thought chop, and more tools to make friends, stop teasing, and feel good about yourself.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Speak-Up-Get-Along-Yourself/dp/1575421828/

 

Meiners, Cheri. (2003). Understand and care.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Understand-Care-Learning-Along-Book/dp/1575421313/

Image Credit:
Description: Portrait of a cute little businessman
Stock Photo ID: #617890714(iStock)
By: Imgorthand
Formal-language
Previously Licensed on: August 15, 2018
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology

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